Baseball's New Pitch
In 1994, Richard Kraft, then New York Yankee vice president of community relations, made headlines after New York magazine quoted him referring to the kids playing in Macombs Dam Park next to Yankee Stadium as "monkeys" and "colored boys." The ensuing controversy caused him to resign and highlighted the Bombers' lack of effort in reaching out to their Bronx neighbors. Five years later, the Yankees are looking to open a new chapter in relations with the
neighborhood that surrounds their home. According to vice president of new business development Joseph M. Perello, the club is hoping to hire a marketing executive this spring to lead its first targeted outreach effort into New York City's Latino community.
"We are looking for someone with experience in both baseball and in the Hispanic community," says Perello. "We want to show we're serious about this. As an organization, we are involved in the Hispanic community, but I think we could and should be doing more."
With the move, the Yankees will join a handful of major league teams making efforts to increase their profile among minority groups in the cities where they play. For all its diversity on the field according to Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, 42 percent of big leaguers are people of color, and according to Major League Baseball (MLB), 21.2 percent are foreign-born the game's audience remains largely lily white.
"In the past, baseball has always been seen as America's game, meaning the United States of America, not the Americas," says José Massó, senior associate director and chief operating officer at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Some call it tradition, others call it racism. In many cities, the game is still marketed to the public the same way it was in the 1940s and '50s, when it was the only game in town. It's not anymore, and baseball is slowly beginning to acknowledge the [minority] market."
In cities such as San Diego, Miami, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, major league clubs have initiated groundbreaking marketing efforts designed to broaden baseball's appeal among people of color, including Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans. Most of these programs include broadcasting all or most of the team's games on Spanish-language TV and/or radio (13 clubs currently do so, Masso says including the Mets and Yankees) as well as developing advertising campaigns directed at certain demographic groupings. In St. Louis, for instance, the Cardinals have responded to a lack of African American attendance at Busch Stadium by placing billboards throughout the city featuring the team's current and former African American stars such as Ray Lankford, Willie McGee, and Ozzie Smith. According to Ted Savage, the team's director of target marketing, the campaign is supported by an increase in team community involvement.
"We get our players out into the community, speaking to school kids, working with charities," notes Savage, a former player who retired in 1972. "When I played here, I remember seeing a lot of African Americans in the stands and playing ball in parks all over the city. I don't see that anymore. We want to get back to that."
The Florida Marlins, meanwhile, have been active in the city's Cuban community since the team began play in 1993. Using the tagline "Nuestros Marlines" "Our Marlins" the team has routinely run ads in local Spanish-language publications as well as on Spanish radio and TV stations, and several team publications, including its Web site, are printed in both Spanish and English. Recently, the organization opened a Marlins en Miami store in the city's Little Havana. There, the team hosts "chats" with Marlins players and coaches and sells tickets and merchandise as well as Cuban coffee. According to John Pierce, the team's director of marketing, the strategy has worked: an estimated 35 to 40 percent of the fans attending Marlins games are of Latino origin.
"Our Hispanic fan base is very important to us," notes Pierce. "We have Spanish-speaking ushers working the stadium to cater to these fans. Latino baseball fans are some of the most passionate fans in the world. We want them to take an ownership in the team and feel welcome at the ballpark. The organization realized from the beginning that it couldn't survive in Miami without appealing to the Hispanic community here."
In San Diego, the Padres took a similar all-encompassing approach after owners Larry Lucchino and John Moores purchased the team in 1994. During the 1995 season, the club hired Enrique Morones, then director of the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and put him in charge of a newly created Hispanic marketing department.
To help Mexican fans overcome the low peso-to-dollar exchange rate and border-crossing delays, the team set up a program called Domingos Padres Tecate, which translates into "Cool Sundays With Tecate"; Tecate is a Mexican brand of beer and the program's sponsor. Under the program, fans that purchase tickets at the team's store in Tijuana receive bus transportation to and from the game every Sunday for the equivalent of $11. The Padres have also played several of their regular-season games in Monterrey, Mexico, including their home opener this year, and the Mexican flag flies at all home games at Qualcomm Stadium. According to Morones, the team's Latino fan base has grown since these programs were instituted, from 5 percent of home fans in 1994 to 23 percent in 1998. (At the same time, average attendance at Qualcomm has increased, from around 1 million fans per season prior to 1994 to more than 2.5 million the last two years.)
"The Latin community is the fastest growing segment on the field and the fastest growing market off the field," says Morones, who was promoted to vice president of Hispanic and international marketing prior to the start of the season. "It's an untapped gold mine." But as his title indicates, Morones is also looking to approach other ethnic minorities in the San Diego area. He has formed both African American and Native American advisory groups to improve the Padres' relationships with those communities.
Just up the freeway in Los Angeles, the Dodgers (the first team to broadcast its games in Spanish) have also taken a multicultural approach, printing their schedules in five languages English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese and hosting "family nights" for people of these and other ethnic groups. As baseball's most diverse franchise (according to MLB, the Dodgers lead the majors with 11 foreign-born players), L.A. has placed billboards in each of the city's ethnic neighborhoods, targeted to the local population. A sign in the city's Koreatown, for example, features Korean-born pitcher Chan Ho Park and a Korean tagline.
"We are trying to focus on communities where English is not the primary language and break through any barriers that exist because of language," notes Barry Stockhamer, the Dodgers' vice president of marketing. "We want to make them feel welcome about coming to Dodger stadium. On the special family nights, we give them an opportunity to show off their culture, hold events like native dance demonstrations outside the ballpark, but ultimately they want to blend in and enjoy the game and enjoy an American tradition."
Back in New York, the Mets initiated a similar program in 1997, holding special "nights" for their Italian, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Asian, and African American fans that included aspects of each group's culture. The program which is seen as patronizing at best by many in the targeted communities enters its third year this season, and will be augmented by a special "Meringue Night," scheduled for a game against the Cubs and Dominican star Sammy Sosa later in the year. Despite the mixed feelings about the team's attempts at outreach, the club puts a big- picture philosophy into its efforts. "We're not looking at what we do as minority marketing," says Mark Bingham, the Mets' senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting. "We are looking at the people who make up New Yorkers. If you want to market to New Yorkers, you have to market to all groups."
Reaching out to and bringing in different demographic groups is not necessarily a smooth process, however. In Boston, when Northeastern University sociology professor and baseball author Alan Klein took a close look at the "Pedromania" phenomenon the throng of Dominican American fans who came out to watch the Red Sox when newly signed Cy Young Awardwinner Pedro Martinez pitched he found a less-than-integrated experience. "The coverage was primarily hype about Martinez and Dominicans. There was this self-congratulatory tone to all of it," says Klein. "I thought, 'That's really horseshit.' As anyone who has been to Fenway Park knows, you can count the people of color there on two hands."
To get a sense of the real impact of Pedromania, Klein surveyed Dominican and Caucasian fans over the course of last season. Of the Dominicans surveyed, only 8 percent said they had attended a Red Sox game prior to Martinez's arrival. And while 95 percent of the Caucasian fans approved of the Martinez signing, 48 percent did not approve of the new influx of Dominican fans that resulted, complaining that they "waved flags" and were "too noisy."
Unfortunately, the Boston experience seems to be the rule rather than the exception in major league baseball despite the seemingly sincere efforts of a few clubs. Even as teams play in largely empty stadiums, owners and executives have largely been hesitant to reach out to people of color. Masso believes, however, that this will change as more minorities are hired into key positions within baseball.
The Padres' Morones agrees, adding, "Baseball has been too much of an old boys' network for too long. But regardless of the level of ignorance, the one color everyone is attracted to is green. Marketing to minorities and getting them to come out to the ballpark makes good financial sense. Baseball needs to wake up to that fact."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.